Katrina Changed Everything
Our Backyard the Day We Returned
Although we had never evacuated for a storm before, by Sunday morning, my husband woke me and said, "I think we'd better leave." Hurricane Katrina was on her way, bringing with her devastation of a kind most of us had never seen or even imagined. We packed up our two cats, enough clothes for three days, which is how long most evacuations last, and headed for the deer camp in Arkansas. What is usually a 5 1/2-hour trip took us 11 hours. Traffic was not quite bumper to bumper, but close. Scarlett, our sweet cat who died from eating the bad food from China, was a perfect traveler. General Lee, born in our backyard and always a problem pet, was absolutely horrendous. He tried to claw his way out of the windows all the way to Strong, Arkansas. He never stopped howling and climbing all over the car. Leaving him in the carrier was not an option. His first instinct when placed in a carrier is to use the bathroom. Scarlett settled in on the console and went to sleep. I still miss that precious kitty.
We arrived in Arkansas, scared, tense, and from that point, glued to the radio. We could not communicate with anyone from the 504 area code except by text. The circuits were constantly busy. Our son was living in New York at the time and kept us posted on any news he had. Our reception at the camp in the woods for both radio and TV was sketchy. We went to a friend's house and watched as the storm arrived, wreaking havoc and ruining lives as it went. The lives that weren't taken were changed forever by Katrina. I don't think anyone escaped without a scar or two. I will never forget as long as I live when my son called and told his father that the 17th Street Canal levee had failed. My husband told me. There was dead silence. Following all logic, our home would be inundated.
I don't remember sleeping a lot at the camp. The sleeping area holds 12 bunk beds. During the night, the cats found it great fun to hop from the top of one bunk bed to the other, which wasn't conducive to sound sleep. I remember dreaming one night that I was feeding my fish. I had several tetras that I was sure would be dead when we returned home. I also dreamed of General Lee's mother, the feral cat who lives in our backyard. I was afraid she had died during the storm, although Joe kept saying she probably just climbed a tree. We couldn't catch her, much less bring her with us.
Neighbors washed our clothes, fed us, invited us to watch television. After watching the fiasco at the Superdome, I could hardly bear to see any more. I did see a clip of a car dealership close to our house, within five blocks. It had not flooded at all. From that point on, I was convinced our house was okay. That seed was planted and grew and I was sure things were fine. Joe was not so sure.
After 11 days, the government allowed residents to come back into our area of the city to check on their property and then leave. We decided to go first to Kentwood to our travel trailer, spend a night there, then go on in to check on the house.
Our Travel Trailer at Kentwood
On the day we headed home, I can remember looking everywhere possible for containers to carry gas in. We'd been told there was a gas shortage and to bring whatever we could. We bought four huge red gas containers and filled them, plus two older smaller ones. We never even thought about the danger or that we'd light up the sky if we had a wreck. All we wanted was to go home. We arrived at Kentwood and when we reached the gravel road that leads back to our 25 acres, it was totally blocked by fallen limbs and trees. Joe had had enough foresight to bring a chain saw and began cutting. It took hours to cut our way back to the trailer. When we got there, a tree had fallen beside the trailer, missing it by less than a foot. It took us two years to completely cut that tree up and burn it, and we still burn what's left of the stump every trip we make up there, seven years later.
We had a hot and miserable night. There was no power. The cats roamed around all night and we worried about what we'd find the next day when we got home. We left for Metairie around noon the next day. I was fairly confident things were okay with the house. As we turned into our neighborhood, we saw piles of carpet in front of houses on the street behind ours. Not a good sign. However, when we reached our house, we could see the line where the water reached, less than inch from our door stop. We opened the house: bone dry. Thank you, God!
The stench was horrendous. The fridge and two freezers in the garage had been off for days. As we looked around, the power suddenly came on. Our neighbor, who had ridden the storm out at his house, said he had asked a friend with the power company to get us going with power, and he did. We decided to freeze the nasty mess in the fridge and two freezers and dump it the next day. Frankie, our feral cat was waiting at the back door for food. I would still love to see how she survived the storm alone in the backyard. I have a mental image of her clinging to a tree, swaying in the wind. Believe it or not, the fish also survived. Their water was murky and full of algae, but they were very much alive and jumped at the food I gave them.
That night as we went to sleep, we heard the helicopters going back and forth to the city, rescuing people off rooftops. Military Humvees were patrolling our neighborhood, trying to keep looters away. Occasionally during the night we would see their spotlights in between the houses. We didn't sleep a lot. There were tales of looting and break-ins and it was hard to relax.
The next day, I had to go to the bank because an employee who worked at my school had evacuated to Tennessee and needed her check. The bank had opened in a trailer that had been pulled into an empty lot for that purpose. When I walked in, there was a young woman in military dress with a rifle in her arms watching every move anybody made. Strange times for Metairie, Louisiana.
Professional Institute of Court Reporting Two Weeks After Katrina
Chalmette, Hardest Hit. Note the Hot Tub on the Roof.
In our whole neighborhood, there were only three people: our neighbor who had ridden out the storm as well as an elderly woman who had somehow gotten back in after the storm. We all looked after her -- or thought we did! She went to the Sam's parking lot every day where they were giving out MREs and water. When they threatened on television to stop the give-aways, she told us, "They'll have a riot on their hands, led by me." Maybe she didn't need looking out for! Most people had no idea that we had electricity and they waited until they were allowed by the government to come back in to stay. We just stayed, period. We had electricity and weren't emotionally up to leaving again.
The people who lived in Chalmette were hardest hit. We drove over there and left there counting our blessings. My husband had one employee who lived there. He had 15 feet of water in his home. The saddest thing about Chalmette was that there was always such a sense of community there, almost like family. To see those people scattered everywhere and no longer together was a very sad thing. We ate at Rocky and Carlo's recently. Chalmette is back. There are still houses that haven't been repaired, but for the most part, green spaces where houses once stood are the only reminder of the wicked witch, as they called Katrina.
In October, I reopened my school. The first week, we had four people in day school and three at night. Students began to gradually drift back. Some moved to other states and never returned. I sold the school in 2008. Our student population was never more than half what it had been prior to the storm. My husband's business was nonexistent. Buying promotional items was the last thing on anyone's mind during that time. Many of his customers didn't make it and closed their businesses. His business has come back, but never to what it was before the storm. The damage to our home was a mere $10,000, soffit and fascia blown off and water in the garage. Compared to so many others, it was embarrassing to even mention. Our damage was the loss of our businesses.
Everyone suffered in some way because of the storm. I didn't want to let my students down by closing and I couldn't bear the idea of losing the business that was such a huge part of my life. I think many businesspeople in New Orleans thought things would get better and, like me, hung on longer than they should have. Things did get better, just not soon enough.
This House Stayed in the Street in Chalmette for Weeks.
The Wheat from the Chaff
This seems to be a theme of mine these days, separating the wheat from the chaff. I am convinced that what is meant by that is dwelling on the good things. There were terrible things that happened during and after Katrina. They've been publicized and litigated and tried and never put to rest. There were, however, many wonderful things done. When we were in Arkansas so isolated from the rest of the world, my sister and my cousin and a couple of friends sent care packages for us through a neighbor near the camp. A friend in Arkansas called every day and tried to get us to come stay with her in Hot Springs. When we left to go home, a friend from the camp pressed hundred dollar bills in my husband's hand. A friend of his in Kiwanis sent a thousand-dollar check in case we needed it. Kiwanians all over the country that he had worked with sent boxes of clothes for us both as well as toiletries and other necessities. A group of men who happened to have a truck equipped to do it cleared the parking lot at my school for no other reason than to help. People opened their doors to friends and relatives and gave them a place to live. Restaurants fed us for weeks after the storm, setting up tables outside and filling plates. There was no food in the stores, so it was a welcome change from MREs. We all still patronize the ones who did that. No one forgot. I saw a young man in Walmart walk away from the checkout because he didn't have enough money for the fan he was trying to buy. A man called him back and paid for it. Rescue workers risked their own safety to save others. People who worked in hospitals did heroic things, evacuating patients from the 9th and 10th floor of buildings with no electricity to operate elevators. The city rose to the occasion in a million ways.
My husband is different now. Before Katrina, he had a huge attachment to things. He simply could not let go of anything. After the storm, he no longer cares. Someone stole his dad's service revolver that he used as a policeman out of our car. He just said, "It's only a gun." I ask myself how I've changed. I think I am more grateful for what I have. I think I realize how things can change, as the Eagles say, in a New York minute. We are all changed in some way, but I think the fundamental change is that we can no longer tell ourselves, "That can't happen here." It did once and it could again. As August approaches and brings with it the anniversary of the storm, I feel confident that we won't have another hurricane, but if we do, we're ready.
My friend lost the bottom floor of her house in the storm. For a long time, she put everything up on high shelves when there was a threat in the Gulf. She stopped doing that three or four years ago and never mentions Katrina now. We have all moved on, but with the knowledge that we survived and if we need to, we can do it again.
Many people died during the storm. I hope each of them rests in peace and their families find comfort somehow. We are like a person who has been attacked unawares, beaten unmercifully, then recovered and moved on, left with scars and memories that will never completely fade. Many people here were heroes during Katrina, and that's what we all like to remember, the goodness that came to the surface because of that horrible storm and shone a light on the darkness and despair. For me, Katrina was that cosmic 2-by-4 that we hear about. It was the wake-up call to live the very best life I can. Anything can happen, any time.
- Depression: The Bell Jar
From the time I was a small child, I experienced bouts of depression,
- Good Samaritan
This is the story of a pretty much mundane trip to Arkansas that turned into quite an adventure. For one day, I was a hero (not a heroine; the word doesn't resonate) in at least my own eyes and those of one other person. It was a mystical day of karm